"Apocalypse: World War II" makes my blood boil. A six-part, nearly five-and-a-half hour series assembled from a treasure trove of old and new World War II footage, it is simultaneously one of the best and worst World War II documentaries I've encountered. Coming on the heels of the phenomenal History Channel presentation, "World War II in HD, which was hyped over it's acquisition of actual color footage, "Apocalypse: World War II" attempts to capitalize on that market, promising viewers "World War II in high-def," but that comes at the cost of colorized archival footage.
I've encountered colorized documentary footage once before in a "World War I" series and I explained there, while I am 100% opposed to the colorization of fictional motion pictures, I do understand the benefit the process has in a documentary setting. I work in the educational field and am no stranger to the struggle of holding the interest of young people, so I fully empathize with the plight of someone producing what, at its core, is educational programming. Colorizing vintage war footage adds a layer of reality (albeit artificial) and will most likely capture the attention of the casual viewer who might otherwise pay no attention to "yet another" World War II program. Thankfully, "Apocalypse: World War II" handles colorization quite well, and only a few sequences are truly atrocious, with the lion's share of the footage having an extra level of impact to share.
The problem with the program though is the utterly banal and arduous narration. The series brings absolutely nothing new to the table in terms of historical insight, save for the same narrator reading the first-hand accounts of those who lived the war. I've long been critical of The History Channel's commercialization of documentary television, but their employment of actors to read the accounts of soldiers in "World War II in HD" is far preferable and emotionally engaging than a bland commentator draining the life from often touching and moving words.
The six-episode series is definitely Eurocentric, taking brief jaunts to the Pacific front, leaving a series that feels roughly 75-85% Europe vs. 15-25% Pacific. As a result, the already stretched thin narrative paints a skewed view of the war and often feels exploitative in its focus on the atrocities committed by the Nazis. If "Apocalypse: World War II" were to be any viewer's first exposure to the subject of World War II, I would say their understanding of the event would be severely lacking. Having to deal with the very disengaging narrative renders the program at best a supplement to a more comprehensive or even more tightly edited and enthusiastic (yes, a strange word to attach to World War II, but dry delivery is interest devastating) offering.
As bad as the narrative backbone of the program is, the footage is captivating and emotional. This is not a sanitized look at the war and many atrocities only spoken about are on display. When the narrator coldly related the mass executions of Jews by Nazis, we see the horrifying footage, thankfully shot from a moderately distanced camera. It's never as gory and graphic as a slasher movie, but it's infinitely more unsettling because it's real, hard evidence of the systematic genocide of a people. The rawness and intimacy of the footage in the program is nearly strong enough to salvage an otherwise forgettable documentary, however, the directors of the program have chosen to slap post-production sound effects over some footage in an inconsistent fashion, slow-down footage for dramatic effect, which in some instances uses footage of people marching to their own deaths as a cheap emotional gut punch. The final kicker is a disappointing, generic score by Kenji Kawai. Don't expect anything in the same ballpark as his "Ghost in the Shell" compositions; this is mostly filler music and what little variety is present in the beginning is sapped in the closing episodes.
If one were to write a recipe for "Apocalypse: World War II" it would ask for a heaping helping of the finest archival footage around and then slightly, but noticeably cheapen it with hokey post-production, before garnishing it with a barely serviceable narrative. The quality of the footage offered should have resulted in a nearly perfect documentary series that would be held against the best-of-the-best. Instead it's a very flawed test of patience that will ultimately only serve the history buff, who will pick this release up solely on the merits of the footage. In the briefest of terms, "Apocalypse: World War II" is a passable, but disappointing entry into the World War II documentary arsenal.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a mixed bag. Working from vintage, low-quality footage, detail is far from astonishing. There are a few sequences where the print is so badly damaged, that what is going on on-screen isn't initially clear. Compounding matters, one of the selling points of the program is the colorization of the footage. For the most part it's handled fairly well, but there are some blatantly poor attempts that when coupled with low detail result in a colored mass of noise. Overall, it's a slightly above average transfer, but inconsistent and definitely not as strong as "WWII in HD" which lost points solely for being a non-anamorphic transfer.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is a bit of overkill, narrative heavy, the bland narrator delivers clear, well-balanced, distortion free dialogue. Kenji Kawai's disappointing score feels a little more dialed back than it should be and the added sound effects are clear, but unnatural sounding. An English Dolby Digital 2.0 track is present as well as English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
On discs one and two, there are separate collections of "never-before-seen footage." It's a nice addition, but not as strong as the main program. On disc three, a roughly 50-minute, somewhat bland making-of featurette turns up; it's a loose affair but does provide some insight, despite running long.
"Apocalypse: World War II" is a very disappointing documentary series that squanders it's treasure trove of archival footage. It paints a shaky picture of the war, focusing too heavily on the European front and sapping what emotion from personal accounts through the use of a bland narrator. While the technical presentation isn't second-rate, it's far from stellar and as a result hurts the impact of the footage more than a few times. For the hardcore World War II buff, it's a good supplemental addition to your library, for everyone else, give it a rent first. Rent It.